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Smoke screen: Panels shake-up plays politics with justice | Editorial | Houston Chronicle

Smoke screen: Panels shake-up plays politics with justice | Editorial | – Houston Chronicle

Houston Chronicle, Editorial Board

October 7, 2009

Several of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s appointees to state university regent boards have already learned the hard way that crossing him can be an administrative death sentence.

Playing footsie with Perry’s primary opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, cost several Texas Tech regents their positions.

Now Perry has replaced three members of a state forensic commission, including its chairman, who were examining disputed evidence in an arson case that resulted in a man’s execution. The probe has put Perry in the ticklish position of being spotlighted as the executive who let a possibly innocent man be executed.

The Texas Legislature had created the nine-member commission in 2005 to study questionable convictions and try to prevent future miscarriages of justice. It seems that with criminal justice, as with higher education, the top priority for Perry appointees who want to keep their positions is protecting the governor rather than carrying out their sworn duties.

The governor had denied a last-minute death-row appeal in 2004 by Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of setting a house fire that killed his three young daughters. The appeal included a report by an arson expert disputing the evidence used to convict Willingham.

The commission was scheduled to take testimony last Friday from a nationally recognized arson expert assigned to examine the Willingham case. In a preliminary report, Craig L. Beyler likewise faulted the arson findings presented at Willingham’s trial as not meeting professional standards.

After replacing chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin lawyer, Perry appointed Williamson County district attorney John M. Bradley. He promptly canceled the hearing, saying he needed time to study the case. He did not commit to completing the inquiry.

Perry also replaced commission members Alan Levy, a prosecutor, and Aliece Watts, a forensic scientist. Bassett, Levy and Watts all expressed disappointment at the governor’s decision and concern it would delay or derail the Willingham investigation.

The governor characterized his decision to replace the trio as “pretty normal protocol” because their terms had expired. The commission members, however, had not been told they would not be reappointed, and Watts said the governor’s staff had indicated she would receive another term. Similar situations occurred with those pro-Hutchison regents at Texas Tech.

Predictably, and with justification, Perry’s gubernatorial opponents from both parties questioned the motives behind the forensic commission shake-up.

In a campaign statement the senator accused the governor of casting a cloud over the re-examination of the Willingham case.

Democratic candidate Hank Gilbert, a Tyler rancher, said the replacement of the commission members was “a political decision “to avoid spotlighting the state’s carelessness in carrying out capital punishment.”

We hope the new forensic commission chairman swiftly acquaints himself with the Willingham case and pushes forward to a rescheduled hearing before the March primary. Otherwise, the inescapable conclusion will be that his appointment was just another example of the governor’s appointment politics.

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